Sunday, November 20, 2011

Are protests truly non-violent?

Granted, some police responses have been excessive, but are a lot of the Occupy protests truly non-violent? Is peaceful vs. violent a simple black and white, or is it more of a gradient? Is speech always by definition non-violent, or can it be just as threatening and harmful as physical violence? Can passive inaction be considered a form of violence? I would submit that extreme forms of speech and even some forms of seemingly passive inaction can indeed constitute forms of physical force or low-grade violence and definitely non-peaceful behavior.
But before I elaborate, I did want to mention that a lot of apparently excessive police activity is usually simply an attempt to preemptively avoid allowing the situation to get out of hand. That was a big lesson from N30, the protests against the WTO that did turn rather violent before the police cracked down on them. So, police "learned" their lesson from that episode and what we see today played out all across the country is that lesson that the N30 protesters "taught" the police.
To me, peaceful people share public space and pathways and facilities, so any attempt to monopolize a public space or pathway or facility by protesters is clearly not "peaceful." It may be an act of civil disobedience, but physically blocking the use of this public space is indeed an act of force or low-grade violence against the non-protestors.
Locking arms and standing still to block public access or any other seemingly passive behavior may nominally seem to be non-violent, but since it retains the element of physical blockage and intimidation it is indeed a form of violence, albeit low-grade.
Civil disobedience is by definition unlawful, but can in fact be peaceful. A sit-in that does not block all access can be quite peaceful, non-threatening, non-intimidating, and indeed non-violent. There is some kind of line or gray area between action or peaceful inaction and physically infringing on the rights of others.
Chanting can be peaceful, for sure. But when the volume and intensity results in intimidation or the language is threatening or intimidating, then indeed it can be violent in nature. Incitement clearly needs to be treated as a form of violence, if only because it can quickly lead to violence. There can be nothing peaceful about threats or intimidation. Protesters can claim to be peaceful, but only to the extent that they refrain from crossing the line into threats, intimidation, name-calling, or incitement. Many protesters are in fact peaceful, but even if a very few cross the line and become aggressive, the quality of peaceful can quickly evaporate for the whole group.
We're all used to disruptions of various sorts in our daily lives and tolerate them when they are minor and temporary, so protesters can get away with a very limited amount of disruption, but the truth is that disruption is a physical act, an act of force, even if that act is nominally passive. It is its physical quality that makes it an act of force, and hence an act of violence, albeit low-grade. Even very short temporary disruptions run the risk of inciting unexpected and possibly violent reactions, and hence need to be characterized as physical force and indeed at least a low-grade of violence.
To be clear, to me, low-grade violence or any "show of force" and intent to disrupt or threaten or intimidate is clearly not peaceful in nature.
So, yes, many protests and protesters can clearly be truly peaceful and truly non-violent, but it is equally true that many forms of protest involve a physical element and various forms of intimidation if not outright incitement and hence need to be considered at least a low-grade of violence. And since violence begets violence, there is a great risk that even low-grade violence can lead to hard-core violence.
There is the practical problem that a protest can be made of of smaller groups of protesters, each with their own agenda and personality, so that some groups can be very peaceful and respectful of others even as other groups or individuals in the same overall protest can be quite the opposite. It is the latter who may taint the character of the entire protest, unfair as that may be. Unfortunately, it is the prospect of those latter "bad apples" that force the police and civic leaders to act preemptively and sometimes excessively to all protesters.


At 4:43 PM , Anonymous Ajlounyinjurylaw said...

Physical infringement is a violation of what I concider peaceful. It will surely become confrontational in most cases if I or anyone else was banned to entering or crossing a physical line.


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